Birmingham, E., Bischof, W. F. and Kingstone, A. (2008). Gaze selection in complex social scenes. Visual Cognition, 16, 341-355.

A great deal of recent research has sought to understand the factors and neural systems that mediate the orienting of spatial attention to a gazed-at location. What has rarely been examined, however, are the factors that are critical to the initial selection of gaze information from complex visual scenes. For instance, is gaze prioritized relative to other possible body parts and objects within a scene? The present study springboards from the seminal work of Yarbus (1967), who had originally examined participants' scan paths while they viewed visual scenes containing one or more people. His work suggested to us that the selection of gaze information may depend on the task that is assigned to participants, the social content of the scene, and/or the activity level depicted within the scene. Our results show clearly that all of these factors can significantly modulate the selection of gaze information. Specifically, the selection of gaze was enhanced when the task was to describe the social attention within a scene, and when the social content and activity level in a scene were high. Nevertheless, it is also the case that participants always selected gaze information more than any other stimulus. Our study has broad implications for future investigations of social attention as well as resolving a number of long-standing issues that had undermined the classic original work of Yarbus.

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